Being an artist can feel a lot like you're Oliver Twist, trembling in your workhouse rags, hands extending an empty bowl to a scowling Beadle Bumble as you squeak, "Please sir, I want some more!" Our profession, to a greater extent than many others, depends on the kindness of strangers. We constantly interview for our next job. Networking, promotion, financial support, and the simple opportunity to be heard, to have the chance to show what we can do --- all these vital things depend on our ability to connect with others.
Asking for the kind of help we need professionally can range from awkward to downright terrifying. But like anything else, there's a way to prepare and a way to do it better.
I. DON'T ASK AN APPLE TREE TO GIVE YOU ORANGES
The first step in a successful ask is to ask the right thing of the right person. Recently, I was approached by a young musician who requested that I listen to and promote a piece of his. He suggested I might want to blog about it. And while it was terrific and engaging work, music criticism is not in my wheelhouse, and it's not the focus of this particular blog. There are lots and lots of other people who write music criticism, and they would be more appropriate targets for this particular ask.
You'll have a much greater success rate with asking strangers for favors if you do your homework and understand who you are approaching for help, and what their sphere of influence or interests may be. It's the same principle as applying for auditions --- you want to target the ones that might be able to use what you have to offer. When you cast your net wide, you may occasionally pull up the treasure you were seeking, but you must do a disproportionate amount of work in order to get enough of it, and then you risk becoming something of a spammer. People begin to ignore you or associate you with nuisance.
When you approach the right person, on the other hand, you increase your chances of piquing their interest, you get on their radar as a resource in their field, and chances are they are already helping out others in a similar fashion, so they know what to do with you. Even if they can't do anything for you at the moment, you've opened the door to future communication and relationship. It's win-win.
This is not to say that you can't approach someone outside your usual sphere for help --- rather, you have to find the right angle. How does what you do tie in with what they do? How could you present your work so that it would appeal to this person's audience? When you approach someone to ask them to promote you, recommend you, or otherwise use their influence on your behalf, it's up to you to sell them on the idea.
II. SPREAD SOME HONEY. NOT TOO THICK.
No one likes BS. It's a waste of time and no matter how you try to disguise it with gold paint and glitter, it still stinks. Humans like sincere compliments, and one of the sincerest you can give is to show someone that you were listening. You paid attention. You've done your homework and you know who they are and what they're about. Conversely, it's pretty insulting to approach someone for a favor when you haven't bothered to find that stuff out. So, when you reach out to someone you don't know, give them some context. You saw them sing Il trovatore at the Lyric in 2010. You were in the chorus when they sang Figaro in Dallas. You follow their blog religiously and you really loved that article about X. You're a huge fan of new music and that piece they just premiered for oboe and accordion knocked your socks off.
In fact, even if you do know the person you're asking, you should provide context, especially if you haven't spoken to them in a while. In that case, let them know you do keep up with them on social media, or that you heard about their latest triumph from a mutual friend, or you haven't spoken in so long and you wanted to find out how they were doing. Oh,and here's what you've been up to.
III. THIS IS YOUR CIRCUS. CORRAL YOUR MONKEYS.
People are often willing to help when they are approached the right way, but they're busy and have their own concerns, and they don't owe you a thing. It is 100% your job to make it easy for them to help you. So before you start hitting the send button, make sure you're clear on what you want this person to do for you. Make sure you are communicating your goal succinctly and specifically, and that you are offering all the information they need in order to help you. Be forthcoming in your very first contact --- the person you are asking a favor of should not have to pull information out of you or interpret what you mean.
Also, if you are asking for anything which requires they do anything electronic (go to this website and click on this link); involving snail mail (stamps and envelopes); pick up the phone, etc., it is up to you to ensure that this process is as simple as possible for them. Provide hotlinks, even if you think they have the info or all they need to do is Google. Provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Give them the names and phone numbers, written out. They should not have to look anything up or go to any more trouble than what they are already doing in order to provide you with this favor.
Don't forget your attachment best practices, either: never send attachments or materials that have not been requested or authorized. It's preferable to offer them, or link to a place where they can be downloaded.
IV. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.
Even busy people will make time to help you out if you approach them correctly. Acknowledge their hectic schedules and ask if you can make an appointment to speak to them; or if your transaction is via email, acknowledge that their time is valuable and thank them in advance for a piece of it. If you have a deadline, mention it right away, and give them as much lead time as possible to help you. One or two gentle follow-ups, spaced days or a week apart depending on your timeline, are fine. If you get no response after the third contact, leave it alone.
IV. MANNERS MUSN'T GO MISSING.
It's a quid pro quo world, kiddies, and impressions count. Remember that when you contact someone for a favor, even if you're already friendly with them, this is a business communication. Treat it accordingly, with a higher level of formality than you use for everyday communication (slightly higher, if you already are friendly with the person).
• Take the time to find out the person's name --- correctly spelled ---, gender, preferred honorific, and title. Under no circumstances should you ever begin a business communication with no salutation, or worse, "Hey". Use Mr., Ms., Dr. , etc. unless you know the person has a different preference. Do not address women as Miss or Mrs. unless you know that is their stated preference.
• As previously mentioned, be sure to provide context (how you know the person, how you found them, any personal connection you may have, some indication that you are familiar with their work).
• This shouldn't need to be said, but alas, judging from my mailbag and conversations with many a colleague, it does. Be sure to phrase your requests politely. You don't need to grovel (it's annoying), but make no assumptions and avoid any hint of entitlement.
• Don't forget --- quid pro quo. You may think that there's not much you could do for someone in a position to do you favors, but at the very least, you should offer. When it comes to social media, the currency is likes, shares, and follows. If you haven't already mentioned that you follow their page, Twitter, or Insta or that you shared their great article, post, or photo, now's the time to do it. "By the way, I just loved your post about women composers! I shared it to my Facebook page and linked it in my student composers' subReddit."
• If you're asking for advice or expertise from someone who sells it for a living, you need to offer up front to pay for it and be prepared to do so. They may choose to gift you with their time and skill, but that's up to them and you should not assume or force them try to figure out whether you're asking to engage them or simply fishing for freebies.
- Last but not least, SAY THANK YOU. You'd be surprised how many people forget to do that, and it makes a lasting impression --- not the kind you're hoping for.
And there you go. Next time you need a favor, you can leave the begging bowl at home. After all, you're an artist, and you have something to offer the world ... even if you sometimes need a little help to do it.